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What should you research?

Your research could be most effective if you move from the general to the specific. The further along you are in your career, the finer you might winnow the field. If you are already very focused and aware of your possible market, you might simply research individual prospects.

Depending on why you are creating a digital portfolio, you may pause at, stop on, or skip directly to any of four progressively more detailed research stages.

1. Who's your target audience?

Savvy creative professionals always ask this question of their clients. Design and advertising are driven by market forces. Each individual market needs to be approached in a unique way. We all know—or we should—that it's hard to develop a good logo, design effective communication, or create a killer game if you haven't a clue about who you need to sell to, speak to, or impress.

We may complain about our clients' myopia, but we can be guilty of the same career crime. Although you can do every type of work for everyone, you are probably better at some types of projects than others. The end result is more satisfying, better produced, and you're proud to show it. Why not make yourself more attractive to people who can offer you that kind of project?

When you aren't consistently getting the work that you would like, you either have to look closely at yourself or your working environment. If you're not sure how to define your audience or what type of audience matches you best, the Market Assessment sidebar later in this article provides a list to spark your thinking.

Which of these items is most important to you? Priorities matter because your ideal situation may not exist.

You might not be sure of how some factors play out—company size, for example. A large corporation may put you to work on one mammoth project, giving you an overview of process and production. Or if you're looking for clientele, you may have prior experience with certain demographics. Should you look for a client that sells to that market? If you're not sure how some of these topics affect your job or client search, you've found a good subject to research.

For example, let's say that you want a better idea of how company size is likely to impact your project opportunities. You could move forward by selecting a small group of companies that do your type of work—half large (advertising companies or design firms listing more than one branch) and half small (firms with a single principal's name or with a creative or unusual identity are often small, personal concerns). Go to their websites and poke around to see how you respond to the type of projects on view, the type of clients (big corporate names or small local companies), and the design of the website itself. A large firm will only show work from a small client if the work represents their most creative effort—a good gauge of their creative range. A small firm may display fairly pedestrian projects if they've been done for a prestigious name—a good measure of their long-term growth aspirations.

Market Assessment

Looking for a job:

  • Geography: Where am I looking?

  • Independent studio/agency or in-house department?

  • Company size?

  • If independent, what specialty? (design/concept, integrated branding, advertising/selling, and so on)

  • Client or company industry category or categories?

  • Type of projects? (packaging, editorial, marketing, entertainment, for example)

  • Specializing in a specific media? (such as print, interactive, mass media, or entertainment)

  • Specializing in specific activities or sub-cultures?

Looking for clientele:

  • Other creatives, individuals, or corporate?

  • If corporate client, specific industries?

  • Type of work they purchase? (identity, packaging, magazine advertising, and so on)

  • Specializing in a specific media? (for example, print, interactive, mass media, entertainment, and so on)

  • Type of audience each client targets

2. What categories should you search?

After you have created a basic definition of your portfolio's target audience, you're looking for general data about this target. Some typical questions to answer might be:

  • Is my target realistic? Are there companies that do exactly what I'm looking for, or should I be more general?

  • How many companies fit my target? Can I narrow it down?

  • How many companies are local? Does the geography matter to me?

In doing a general category search, you should come up with several pages of possible company targets. If you're in the triple digits, you need to be more selective. If you have only five to ten options, you've narrowed your options too far and too fast.

3. What specific companies should you approach?

Now you're honing in on companies that exemplify the type of work you'd like to do.

You may have found these companies initially by exploring links from the general search or developed a separate list from directories maintained by professional organizations. These companies will become the target audience against which you will "test" your portfolio concepts. You'll ask more specific questions about this group:

  • What do the companies I've short-listed have in common?

  • What do they have to say about their process or client relationships?

  • What types of clients do they specialize in?

  • What is the range of work they do?

The more these companies have in common, the easier it will be to create a digital portfolio that will be appropriate to the group, yet feel individually crafted when you approach each one. Understanding the visual language and work culture of the companies you admire will make it easier to winnow your existing work and develop ideas for your portfolio presentation.

If you are in possession of this information, you can use it to answer a broad range of vexing questions about your portfolio format, content, and design. Here are some examples of questions that you can find answers to through networking, periodicals, school contacts, websites, or other research sources:

  • Should I put that group of photographs in my graphic design site?

  • Will they appreciate my sense of humor?

  • Which illustrations are likely to get me more book work?

  • Will they be put off by the ad campaign work?

  • How much new media work should I bring compared to print?

4. What do these organizations want from you?

Defining your audience and determining their basic category information should always take place before you begin your portfolio. They may be all you need. But in some situations, you want to impress an audience of few—or one. If you've done a good job in organizing yourself, you may be able to quickly pull together a version of your portfolio for one special company.

Search questions to answer about a specific company:

  • Are they busy? Are they hiring?

  • What is their aesthetic? Do I like it? Would I be proud to work with them?

  • What's their philosophy or way of working with clients? Could I work within it?

  • How do they like to be approached? Email? Letter? Phone?

  • Who are their decision-makers? What does their personal work look like?

  • What are they like to work for?

You may wonder why you need to ask these questions. You're applying for a job, not marrying the company. Yes and no. If you're hired, you'll probably spend more time at the office than you do with your significant other. You need to know that so many hours will be well-spent and that the projects you take on will enhance your next portfolio. Also you should consider the other side. If you are hired, but it's not a good fit, you might not stay hired for long. You could have used that time to find a more compatible situation.

You will need a slightly different approach for a full-throttle search on a specific company. Word of mouth information is the most precious and useful way to learn about a specific company that you want to work with or for. Personal and local contacts will be most important, particularly to find out if the company represents a solid work opportunity.

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